CALL – 7. Investigating Social Movements Through Ethnography

Panel organised by Mischa DEKKER & Delphine THIVET

How to investigate mobilizations of social movements? This panel invites PhD candidates and young researchers to explore their different uses of ethnography to seize the complex logics at work in social movement mobilizations. The panel welcomes papers that reflect on the specificities of research on actors committed to some form of collective political participation.

Researchers studying mobilizations processes generally turn their attention towards the “framing” accomplished by organizations. Public demonstrations are treated as moments of activist performance, focusing on the most active social movement actors. Such an approach risks ignoring or overlooking social heterogeneity, uncertainties of meaning, or inequalities and different power relations (class, race, gender) that characterize social movements (Burdick, 1995). In protests that have emerged in and after 2011 such as Occupy, the Indignados, Occupy Central in Hong Kong, and the occupations of Tahrir and Gezi Square, the question of power relations among activists presents itself particularly strongly in the light of the large heterogeneity of participants, causing disputes among activists over the definition and objectives of the movement. Papers in this panel should address the role of ethnography to allow a more de-centered view and try to look beyond the most visible “tip of the iceberg” (Plows, 2008; Combes, Hmed, Mathieu, Simhieu, Sommier, 2011). How to enlarge the fieldwork to take into account less visible, more fluid and more contradictory dimensions of mobilizations processes (Wolford, 2007)?

The panel hopes to open up a series of reflections on the conditions that make research on mobilizations processes possible. With the presentation of concrete situations observed and lived by the researcher, an effort could be made to grasp the difficulties inherent to research among activists (Broqua, 2009): how to enter, how to maintain one’s presence, and also how to exit the fieldwork?

We also encourage the submission of papers addressing the hesitations of activists taking part to social movements to be constituted as an “object” of study and perhaps even refusal to submit themselves to a possibly critical analysis of the researcher, who comes to be considered as an outsider. To what degree does the researcher strive to “co-construct” the object of study together with social movement actors (Juris, 2007)? What say can both sides assert over the results of the research? How does the researcher face potential attempts to control the conclusions of her/his research in order to maintain critical distance (Bizeul, 2008; Rootes, 1990)?

Moreover, the panel is open to papers exploring ways in which the researcher occupies both an “ethnographic engagement” and a “civic and political engagement” (Cefaï, 2010) during fieldwork on mobilizations processes. The researcher may be caught in a dilemma between, on the one side, the impossibility of not “choosing a camp” (Becker, 1967), and on the other hand, the risk of “endogamy” denounced by Michel Offerlé (2009) but common in social movement studies. Being an activist or at least sympathetic to the “cause” is frequently a precondition for research as it grants the investigator his or her entry-rights into the social movement (Thorne, 1979; Scheper-Hughes, 1995). Nonetheless, consequences are attached to the display of sympathy towards certain members of a movement. In what circumstances might this sympathy be interpreted as picking camps within a movement, obstructing goodwill from other parts and thereby closing off access to certain aspects of the fieldwork? Particular attention might be given to the strategies through which researchers succeed in evading specific biases, maintain a presence in the field, and negotiate exit at the moment of writing.


Becker H. (1967), “Whose Are We On ?”, Social Problems, vol. 14, n°3, p. 239-248.

Bizeul D. (2008), “Les sociologues ont-ils des comptes à rendre”, Sociétés contemporaines, n° 70, p. 95-113.

Broqua C. (2009), “L’ethnographie comme engagement: enquêter en terrain militant”, Genèses, n° 75, p. 109-124.

Burdick J. (1995), “Uniting theory and practice in the ethnography of social movements: notes toward a hopeful realism”, Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 20, n°3-4, p. 361-385.

Cefaï D. (2010), Ch. 8 “Un pragmatisme ethnographique. L’enquête coopérative et impliquée”, in Cefaï D. (dir.), L’engagement ethnographique, Paris, EHESS, p. 449-472.

Combes H., Hmed C., Mathieu L., Siméant J., Sommier I. (2011), “Observer les mobilisations”, Politix, n° 93, p. 7-27.

Juris J. (2007), “Practicing Militant Ethnography with the Movement for Global Resistance (MRG) in Barcelona », in Shukaitis S. & et Graeber D. (eds.), Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation, Collective Theorization, Oakland, CA, AK Press, p. 164-176.

Offerlé M. (2009), Dictionnaire des mouvements sociaux, “groupes d’intérêt”, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2009, p. 279-286.

Plows A. (2008), “Social Movements and Ethnographic Methodologies : An Analysis Using Case Study Examples”, Sociology Compass, n°2, p. 1523-1538.

Rootes C. (1990), “Theory of Social Movements: Theory for Social Movements?”, Philosophy and Social Action, vol. 16, n°4, p. 5-17.

Scheper-Hughes N. (1995), “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology”, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, n°3, p. 409-440.

Thorne B. (1979), “Political Activist As Participant Observer: Conflicts Of Commitment In A Study Of The Draft Resistance Movement Of The 1960’s”, Symbolic Interaction, vol. 2, n°1, p. 73-88.


Submit your proposal/abstract via email attachment to Mischa DEKKER ( and Delphine THIVET (

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